Caught! (A Shamwell Tales novel)

Caught! by JL Merrow
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-613-2
eBook release: 
Jun 5, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-614-9
Print release: 
Jun 5, 2017
Word count: 
88,400
Page count: 
339
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Shamwell Tales universe.

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Bow ties are cool . . . but secrets, not so much.

Behind Robert Emeny’s cheerfully eccentric exterior lies a young heart battered and bruised by his past. He’s taken a job in a village primary school to make a fresh start, and love isn’t part of his plans. But then he’s knocked for six—literally—by a chance encounter with the uncle of two of his pupils.

Sean Grant works in pest control, lives on a council estate, and rides a motorbike. Robert is an ex–public schoolboy from a posh family who drives a classic car. On the face of it, they shouldn’t have anything in common. Yet Robert can’t resist Sean’s roguish grin, and passion sparks between them even after an excruciatingly embarrassing first date. 

Too bad the past Robert’s hiding from is about to come looking for him. His increasingly ludicrous efforts to keep his secrets are pushing Sean away—but telling the truth could make Sean leave him for good.

(Note: This is a revised second edition, originally published elsewhere.)

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Stop pushing! Mr. Enemy, she’s pushing me!” George H. was crimson-cheeked and close to tears. Destinee had that hard look on her overly knowing face that meant she was guilty as sin, but she was ready to deny it to her dying day.

“Calm down, please, you two.” I gave Destinee my sternest glare. “If I see any more of that, you’ll be staying in at playtime and sharpening every single one of the colouring pencils. Yes, even the boring colours.”

“But I didn’t do nuffing!” Destinee whined at me, her pathetic tone belied by the evil glint in her hazel eyes. She was probably already planning her revenge, most likely by stabbing me through the heart with a fiendishly sharpened pencil. In sludge brown. We had a short face-off, which ended with her making a tactical withdrawal. I wasn’t naive enough to delude myself into thinking it was a retreat.

All was peaceful for a moment as I carried on shepherding form 2E into St. Saviour’s Church, tins and jars for Harvest Festival clutched in tiny hands. Thirty pairs of eyes (actually, twenty-nine and a half; Jodie was wearing a patch for her lazy eye) searched eagerly for sight of parents and grannies. I gazed out on the sea of female and/or wrinkly faces in the pews and wondered idly if there was any job in the world, anywhere, that was worse for meeting men than the average primary-school teaching post. Father confessor in a nunnery, maybe? Avon cosmetics rep? Or one of those poor sods who went round emptying the sanitary bins they put in ladies’ loos?

I gave myself an internal nod of approval. I’d chosen wisely for my first proper job since Crispin—

An outraged squeal pierced my eardrums and reverberated around my skull. My head snapped around, and I winced as my neck cricked. Destinee was kicking off again.

With a wail of “I said stoppit!” George H. stumbled into Charlie, a sensitive young man whose mother was no longer in the picture and whose father, I’d realised, didn’t quite know what to do with him. I was rather fond of the little chap. I was less fond of his father, who had, with criminal lack of forethought, loaded him up with an enormous, heavy jar of pasta sauce. Inevitably, the jar slipped from Charlie’s startled fingers.

I dived for it without conscious thought, launching myself across the stone flags. Time slowed, the jar seeming to fall through treacle, giving me plenty of leisure for a flashback to a long-ago missed catch for the Loriners’ first eleven. History repeating itself, oh, bloody hell. I wondered how many weeks it’d take them to scrub the red stuff off the pews—and me, come to that—and whether Charlie would have stopped crying by then.

Then a pair of hefty, leather-clad arms shot out and fielded the jar mere inches before it could hit the stone floor.

I slammed into said floor myself with an oof and narrowly missed knocking the blasted thing straight out of his grasp again. Bruised and panting, I stared at the saviour of St. Saviour’s—not to mention my Harris tweed jacket—from my supine position six inches away on the flagstones.

He grinned back at me from his. “That was a close one!” Green eyes sparkling in a roguish, ginger-stubbled face, my opposite number leapt back up to his feet and handed the jar back to Charlie. “Here you go, mate.”

And then he was gone, startling smile, freckles, and all. Charlie was by my side, clutching the precious burden tight to his chest and whimpering softly. I got to my feet, dusted myself off, and cleared my throat. “Right. Let that be a lesson to you, young Destinee. Now, carry on. We need to take our seats.”

Heads had turned. More than that, the Head had turned. Thank God disaster had been averted. Losing two jobs in one year would probably begin to look like carelessness. With the uncomfortable suspicion my face must be as red as Charlie’s ragù, I carried on herding the children into the pews and was grateful when I could finally slide onto a straight-backed wooden seat myself. And begin courting backache; apparently ergonomics wasn’t yet in vogue when the pews were designed. Or maybe they were just the furniture equivalent of the hair shirt.

St. Saviour’s was an old church, the present building dating roughly from around the time of the Black Death, when presumably ingratiating oneself with Him on High must have seemed like a jolly good idea. It was constructed on its exterior from the evocatively named Totternhoe clunch, a sort of indigestible porridge of flinty pebbles in mortar, and on the inside from large blocks of pale-grey stone. Thanks to a recent sandblasting, it was rather brighter and cheerier inside than you might expect of a medieval building. The sight lines, though, were dreadful; the chancel was crowded with massive stone pillars at least a couple of bear hugs in circumference and the side chapels were all but invisible to those not actually in them.

Not, of course, that I was in any way straining secretly (and in vain) for a glimpse of black leather, copper-coloured hair, and a ready smile. I wasn’t that daft. Sworn off men for life, that was me. Or, well, maybe not life. Just the next twenty years or so. Maybe thirty, just to be on the safe side. I’d be in my midfifties; surely I’d have acquired a bit more discernment by then.

Was he a biker? I wondered. The man who’d saved us all from the Great Spaghetti Sauce Massacre, I meant. The leather jacket might just be a fashion statement. I frowned. Could he be a parent? I’d had a vague impression of someone around my own age, so yes, it was possible. If he’d embarked on parenthood when I was busy swotting for my A levels. I pursed my lips.

Charlie pulled my sleeve. “Mr. Enemy?”

“Yes, young Charlie?” I whispered back.

“Why are you making funny faces?”

I froze. “My nose itches.”

He looked at me solemnly. “You should scratch it. Like this.”

A grubby little finger plunged up an only slightly cleaner nose and started to move around vigorously. “Ah. Careful there, Charlie. You’ll give yourself a— Oh dear. There we go.” I pulled out my handkerchief and did my best to stanch the Niagara Falls of blood from Charlie’s abused nostril. Then I glared at the children in the pew in front, who’d turned round to goggle at the poor boy. “Eyes front. Haven’t you ever seen a nosebleed before?”

“Is Charlie going to die, Mr. Enemy?” Destinee asked in a tone of relish.

“We’re all going to die, Destinee,” I said firmly. “Some of us sooner than others. Now hush. We’re supposed to be listening to the prayers.”

The rest of the service went rather as expected—Emily J. forgot her lines, the reception class was adorable but inaudible, somebody’s little sister had an unfortunate potty-training accident and Mrs. Nunn, Destinee’s mum, got told off by the vicar for chatting loudly on her mobile phone. At least it hadn’t been her daughter she’d called.

I pasted on a smile as I strode to the crossing to lead the little darlings in a whole-school rendition of St. Saviour’s School’s official harvest song, “I Like Baked Beans.” I’d spent the last three weeks coaching them in it, and I was quite possibly never going to eat another baked bean ever again. I even dreamed about them, the song running through my head like a radioactive earworm. If it had gone on one more week, I’d have been at serious risk of having a nervous breakdown in the canned-food aisle in Tesco. I could almost hear the Tannoy announcement: Straitjacket to aisle seven, please.

Would a redheaded, leather-armoured knight of the road have appeared to save me as I gibbered among the groceries? I wondered, beating time with every semblance (I hoped) of enthusiasm. My gestures became more and more exaggerated as tiny attention spans dwindled and expired in a puff of bad behaviour. Destinee was blatantly not singing, her arms folded and her lips pressed so tightly together they’d turned white. Charlie, bless him, was bellowing out the words loud and clear in his wobbly treble, flat on the low notes and sharp on the high. The terrible twins were playing slapsies with each other, but as I’d had the foresight to place them behind a pillar, nobody would ever know.

As the last notes died away, I lowered my hands, and the parents burst into applause made riotous by their relief it was finally all over. Unless that was just me. I turned to take a quick bow, and couldn’t resist scanning the congregation for a glimpse of orange.

All I saw were Edward C.’s pumpkins and Emily G.’s basket of tangerines. Good, I decided. I was safe. And at least Harvest Festival was over for the year.

As was apparently traditional, the parents formed a sort of honour guard along the path for the children as they came out of church, although I noticed one or two sloping off guiltily as soon as they’d been let out. Destinee’s mother was back on her mobile already, her highlighted hair tucked behind one multiply pierced ear as she texted with one hand and lit up a cigarette with the other in a rather impressive display of multitasking.

The Catcher in the Aisle, however, was waiting expectantly by the path. Seen for the first time in the light of day—not to mention in a vertical position—he proved to be tall and lean, although nicely broad shouldered. He was wearing a turquoise T-shirt that made his green eyes glow and washed-out denim jeans that looked as soft as velvet and fit him perfectly. His unruly red hair sent a warning—or a promise—of danger that was only enhanced by his battered black biker jacket. He was definitely at least in his midtwenties, I thought, although perhaps a few years older than me. He had a slightly weathered look about him. An outdoorsy type.

I realised he was looking straight at me, a smile curving at the corner of his lips. Oops. He must have caught me staring at him. I stepped up to him before my better judgement could talk me out of it. “Excellent catch, there! Are you a cricketing man?”

He shrugged. “Nah, football’s more my game.” I could have kicked myself. My better judgement offered to put on a pair of steel-toed boots and join in. Men who wore scuffed motorbike jackets and embarked on fatherhood in their teens generally had other things to do on their Sundays than don flannels and step up to the wicket on the village green.

Suddenly his face broke into a wide grin that just about took my breath away. I found myself smiling back helplessly and then felt like an idiot as I realised he was looking straight past me. “Wills! Harry! Great singing, lads!” Two redheaded terrors—the terrible twins themselves—threw themselves upon him, squealing “You came!”

“Course I did. Wouldn’t miss this, would I? Good to hear you’re still singing the old song. ‘I like baked beans, Brussels sprouts, and tangerines . . .’

I slipped away. I had a class of six-year-olds to shepherd back to school. Goodness knows what I’d been thinking, talking to the man like that.

At lunchtime, I sat in the staff room and stared gloomily at my tuna-and-horseradish sandwich. It had seemed like such a good idea at the time. The time in question having, of course, been the moment I looked into my fridge and realised I’d neglected to go shopping. Again.

Rose Wyman came and plonked herself down next to me, which cheered me up a bit. Rose was short and pretty in a well-padded sort of way, with curly fair hair and large blue eyes. She taught year three and was, I thought, a few years older than me. Possibly even six or seven. I didn’t like to ask, though. I’d already put my foot in it three weeks into the job when I’d commented on her no longer wearing her engagement ring. Although she’d been fine about it really, once she’d stopped crying. She’d offered to return my handkerchief next day, wonkily ironed and smelling of cheap fabric softener, but, having very little confidence in my ability to avoid future verbal cock-ups, I’d suggested she keep it.

I could see this job really eating into my handkerchief stocks. Maybe I should alert Mother to buy me some more for Christmas.

“Robert?” Rose nudged me, grinning. “I saw you chatting up Sean Grant earlier.”

“Sean Grant?” The name didn’t ring a bell, although the accusation touched a guilty nerve. Which was ridiculous. Obviously. “Who’s he?”

Rose arched an eyebrow. Archly. “The one with the red hair and the cheeky grin? You know. Saved us all from smelling like an Italian restaurant for the rest of the day.”

“Oh, him.” I tried to sound airy. I had a sneaking suspicion I only managed wheezy. “He’s the terrible twins’ dad, I take it?”

William and Harry Curtis—and really, what were their parents thinking of, with those names? I supposed if they’d been girls, they’d have been christened Diana and Camilla. Although, then again, maybe not. They’d been oddly quiet today, considering how much they usually disrupted lessons. I wasn’t sure if they were borderline ADHD or just reacting to their mother’s illness. I didn’t know any details, but her tired, drawn appearance at the classroom door at the end of the school day, not to mention the headscarves she always wore, were something of a giveaway.

“He’s their uncle, actually. Surprised you haven’t seen him before. Mind you, their mum’s been a bit better since the summer, hasn’t she? S’pose this means she must be feeling worse again, him being here and not her. He’s been great, looking after them when she’s poorly.” She glared at her own lunch, which, as far as I could see, had done nothing to deserve it and was a perfectly nice pasta salad. “Their dad’s been no help at all. Don’t think he’s even seen the twins since they were in nappies.”

“Oh. Um. I didn’t get around to introductions. And I wasn’t chatting him up either. Chatting, yes. But there was no up.” I took another bite of my frankly revolting sandwich, gagged, and swallowed as quickly as I could. “Do you, um, know him well?”

Rose shrugged. “Not really. But he seems nice.” She forked up some pasta salad, and I winced as my stomach gave a loud, involuntary rumble.

Maybe if I peeled the top layer of bread away from the filling really carefully, it’d be just about edible . . .?

Rose laid a hand on my arm. “Want my banana?”

I nodded gratefully. “Thanks. You’re an angel.” She even looked a bit like one, with those blonde curls and big eyes. Well, perhaps more in the cherub line. Whatever, she was lovely. I wondered what on earth had possessed that idiot fiancé of hers to call it off.

“You know, you really ought to eat more,” Rose said as she handed over the yellow lifeline. “One of the mums called you a manorexic the other day.”

Perhaps it had been the nagging. I frowned. “That’s not even a word. Or is it, these days, along with chav and well jel? Anyway, it’s ridiculous. My diet is perfectly adequate.”

“For a supermodel, maybe. Or a reality-TV star. Not for anyone who’s actually human.” She narrowed her eyes. “And it’s making the rest of us look bad. Tell you what, let’s get a takeaway.”

“What, now? I’ve got register in thirty-seven minutes.”

“Not now. Tonight, if you like. Or whenever you’re free.”

“Oh. Er, yes, okay. Tonight would be lovely.” It was only half a lie. Her company would be lovely. The food, I suspected, not so much. “Your place or mine?”

“Yours, obviously. Seeing as I live six million miles away from the nearest takeaway, and you’ve got one down the bottom of your garden.”

“It’s not down the bottom of the garden. It’s twenty yards up the road. And you only live just up the hill.”

“Same difference. It’s a big hill. Anyway, I’ll come home with you, we can do our marking, and then we’ll get an Indian. I want chicken passanda. Oh, and lamb jalfrezi.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Do I get to choose anything?”

“Based on your sandwich choices? No. Oh, all right, you can choose the veg. And the rice. As long as it’s pilau.”

* * * * * * *

My house, or rather the one I was renting, the Old Hatter’s Cottage, was one of the oldest houses in the village, and bang slap in the centre. It was just down the road from the Chinese takeaway, which used to be a bank and before that was a pub, and next door to an estate agent’s, which used to be a bakery. And before that, a pub. Next door on the other side was just a house, which had never been anything else as far as I knew. But it could conceivably have been a pub once upon a time.

“Did you know there used to be twenty-one pubs in the village, back in 1901?” I asked as Rose and I ambled up the road after a strenuous round of marking wobbly handwriting. The warm, sunny day had turned into a mild evening, which, at seven o’clock, was still not fully dark, although the nights were closing in fast on us. “That was around one for every twenty-five households.”

“How do you even know that? You’ve only just moved here.”

“I have a ’satiable curiosity.”

Rose frowned. “If that’s a quote, I haven’t seen the film.”

I tsked. “It’s from a book, actually. Call yourself a teacher, woman? Rudyard Kipling, the Just So Stories.”

“A book? That’s so old, it’s practically a stone tablet.”

“It’s a classic.”

“You mean one of those books everyone’s heard of and nobody wants to read? Ooh, look—isn’t that Sean Grant up ahead? Looks like he’s going for a Chinese too.”

My stomach went tight. There was a streetlamp right by the takeaway, and the flash of red hair above that black leather jacket was unmistakable as the lean figure disappeared into the old bank building. Then I frowned. “What do you mean, too? I thought we were going to have an Indian.”

“I changed my mind. Got a sudden craving for crispy duck. And prawn crackers.” She grabbed me by the arm and practically dragged me along the street, past the bright-red lights of the Indian and towards the old bank building.

I had a sinking feeling this would not end well.

 

Chapter Two

“Hello, Sean,” Rose chirped as I stumbled up the three shallow steps into the Chinese takeaway. “Fancy meeting you here.”

He turned. “Oh—hi. You all right?” he said, looking right at me. His hair was all mussed and flattened in odd places, as if he’d taken off a motorcycle helmet and then run his fingers through his hair. Which, on reflection, was probably precisely what he’d done. He looked dangerous and inviting, like a sleazy club on the bad side of town with a half-price drinks offer you know you’ll end up regretting in the morning.

I swallowed. “Fine! Just—you know. Having a takeaway.”

He nodded, straight-faced. “Yeah. That’s what most people come here for, actually.”

I opened my mouth to make a snappy comeback, then shut it again quickly when I realised I didn’t have one. Damn it. Rose, treacherously, snorted. She cleared her throat. “Not looking after the twins tonight, then?”

“Nah, I took ’em to the park after school and wore them out with a kick-about, so Debs reckoned she’d be fine with them tonight.” He leaned against the wall, all easy relaxation.

Rose cocked her head to one side. “So that means you’re on your own, does it?” she asked, her voice innocent.

What on earth was she playing at?

“We can’t let him eat on his own, can we, Robert?” She turned to Sean and gave him a honeyed smile. “You’ll have to come to Robert’s. We can all share. It’ll be great.”

Oh. Oh . . . I just managed to stop myself slapping my forehead in front of everyone. Of course. Just because I’d sworn off men didn’t mean Rose had.

Sean shook his head. “Cheers, but I don’t want to be a gooseberry.” He gave the two of us a significant look.

Rose snorted again. She really ought to try to break herself of the habit. “Come on! You honestly think him and me are together?”

I hoped I’d just imagined her lip curling as she gestured towards me. “I’m not sure I’m altogether flattered by that remark,” I protested.

She smiled at me, looking more toothsome than a crocodile. “Sorry, sweetheart. I don’t believe in cradle-robbing.”

Icy shock lanced through my chest—then I realised she just meant I was too young for her. Idiot.

“You all right, mate?” Sean was staring at me, concern crinkling the corners of those perilously green eyes of his. “Look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

“I— Yes. Of course.” I forced a smile. “I’m quite all right, I mean. Not that I’ve seen a ghost. Hertfordshire’s really not that haunted. Not like Gloucestershire. Or the Isle of Wight . . .” I caught myself. “We should order. Will you be joining us?”

I wasn’t sure what I hoped his answer would be. I’d been looking forward to a cosy, relaxed meal with Rose, but damn it, the demands of friendship were clear. If she was after him, it was my duty to help her. It’d do me good too to concentrate on someone else for a bit. If nothing else, it’d be a constant reminder to me that I was not looking for anyone for myself.

Even if it would be hard to watch them getting closer . . .

“Nah, thanks,” Sean was saying, “but it’s been a busy day. Think I’ll just have a quiet night in with the telly.” He grinned suddenly. “’Sides, Wills and Harry’d never forgive me if they found out I’d been fraternizing with the Enemy.”

“My name’s actually Emeny. Em. En. Ee.” I sounded it out with resignation. “But to ninety-nine percent of the school, yes, I’m the Enemy. And that’s including the teachers. Still, it could be worse,” I added more optimistically.

“Yeah?”

“I was a supply teacher for a week in a London secondary school, where the year elevens delighted in dubbing me Mr. Enema. It was the longest week of my life. Also, quite possibly, the most educational. Although not in matters I’d care to elaborate on.”

Sean laughed. All right for him, with a gift of a name like Grant. “Guess it’s not easy being gay and teaching in a place like that.”

I blinked at him. He knew I was gay? Who’d told him? No. I must have misheard him. He hadn’t said that. Had he? “Pardon?”

Sean took a step back. “Uh, sorry, mate. No offence. It’s just you look . . . Sorry.”

Oh. “That’s quite all right,” I muttered to my brogues. My face was hot. I supposed it was only fitting that it should turn a fetching shade of pink, seeing as the rest of me apparently proclaimed my sexual preferences to the world at large. That year-eleven joke on my name took on a whole new meaning.

“We’re not really used to someone like you here,” he said, which made me feel even worse.

“Shamwell has hitherto been a queer-free zone, has it?” I snapped.

“What? No, you got me wrong. I just meant, you’re a bit of a cut above, you know?”

“A cut above what?” I asked, suspicious. If there was a circumcision joke in the offing, I was . . . I was getting paranoid, I decided.

“Well, the way you talk—the way you dress, come to that—I’d have thought you’d be teaching royalty at Eton, not slumming it here with us.”

My blood ran cold. “I don’t know what you mean. Why shouldn’t I be here? There’s nothing sinister about it.”

Sean had stepped back, his hands raised. Why was he smiling? “Whoa. Hold on, who said it was? Just surprised, that’s all. You got family in the area?”

Oh. “Er, no.” I essayed a nonchalant shrug, and something in my neck twinged painfully. “Ow. I just saw the post advertised and thought it sounded interesting.”

“You all right there?” Sean asked as I rubbed my neck, which had reached the pins-and-needles stage.

“Quite fine. Thank you.” I rolled a shoulder gingerly.

His mouth quirked in a suit-yourself sort of way. “So do you live in the village?”

“Um, yes. Thank you. And yes. I’m renting the Old Hatter’s Cottage. Just down the road. You know it?”

“Yeah? Hey, that’s great.”

He seemed a tad more pleased than I’d have expected. “Why?”

“He was my great-great-grandad. The Old Hatter, I mean. He lived in that cottage all his life—least, that’s what my mum always said. Big industry in this area, hats used to be.”

I had visions of the village in days gone by, half the population high on mercury fumes. And the other half, of course, drunk on beer from the proliferation of pubs. It’d certainly explain one or two architectural idiosyncrasies, like the strangely undulating wall just down the road from the church. “Oh—so your family is my landlord?”

“Nah, the house was sold way before my time.” He raised one eyebrow a couple of millimetres. “You know, you probably ought to order your food, if you want to eat tonight.”

“Done it,” Rose interrupted. “Hours ago.”

I’d wondered where she’d got to. “Oh? What are we eating?”

“Oh, the usual. Sweet-and-sour pork balls, cashew chicken, and crispy beef. And monk’s vegetables, ’cause you look like you could do with getting your five a day.”

“What happened to the crispy duck?”

“I decided to let it live to quack another day.”

Sean grinned. “Don’t want to disappoint you, but I reckon it was dead already. I don’t think they just run down to the river and nab one of the ones the kids like to feed.”

“Dunno why not,” Rose said with a shrug. “There’s enough of them.”

I frowned. “I’ve never seen more than twenty-eight, and that was only the once. Usually it’s between twelve and seventeen. That wouldn’t keep this place going for more than a fortnight.” I realised they were both staring at me. “What?”

Rose patted my arm. “Just so’s you know, most people don’t count the ducks every time they walk past the river.”

“Oh.” I thought about it for a moment but decided not to ask Why not? They’d only have given me funny looks again, I was sure of it.

There was a brief silence, thankfully broken by the Chinese lady behind the counter. “Order for Grant.”

Sean pushed himself off the wall. “Right, that’s me. I’ll see you around, all right?”

“If you’re sure you wouldn’t like to share our, um, pork balls?” I said, making an effort for Rose’s sake.

“That’s okay. Wouldn’t want to get between a man and his pork balls.”

Sean grabbed the carrier bag from the lady, smiled at us, and left.

“Bloody hell, have you never heard of playing it cool?” Rose muttered to me as the door closed behind him.

“What do you mean?”

“He already said no once. You don’t have to act all desperate for his company.”

“So-rry.” I jammed my hands into the pockets of my jacket and turned to examine the cards and flyers from local businesses on the windowsill, which hoped to persuade me into parting with my cash for, variously: tree surgery, computer services, and bikini waxing in the comfort of my own home. I winced. Not that I’d ever been waxed, but I had a very good imagination, and I wasn’t sure where the comfort part was supposed to come in.

Rose peered over my shoulder. “Ooh, that’s quite a good price for a Brazilian. I’ll have one of them.”

I handed over the flyer for Ruby’s Waxing. “You know, I could have lived without the knowledge of exactly how you cultivate your lady-garden.”

Rose snorted a laugh. “Lady-garden? Ew. You make it sound like it’s got things living in it. So what about you? I’ve heard gay blokes are all into manscaping.”

“Some of us prefer to buck the trend. And why am I even telling you this?” The door opened, and I got another crick in my neck turning to check if it was anyone from the school. “Ow,” I said, rubbing my neck.

The man who’d just walked in (fifties, unshaven, thankfully a total stranger) gave me a funny look.

“Order for Wyman,” the lady at the counter announced. I breathed a sigh of relief. Finally I could escape to relative privacy before Rose got it into her head to ask if I had any intimate piercings.

I didn’t, by the way. Mother thought piercings were common. Which meant, naturally enough, that when I was fourteen, I got my best friend at school to pierce my ear for me with a sewing needle.

At least, Fordy had said it was a needle. I wasn’t altogether sure he knew the difference between needles and pins. Or, for that matter, sharp and blunt, or sterile and more germ-laden than a rat with bubonic plague.

One very nasty infection and two courses of antibiotics later, I’d decided that (a) this particular rebellion wasn’t worth the upset it caused to Mother and (b) over my dead body would anyone ever get near my intimate bits with anything sharp and pointy.

I had, as it happened, allowed Fordy near my intimate bits, although not with anything sharp and pointy. That hadn’t ended particularly well, either.

* * * * * * *

“Do you think I’m really that obvious?” I asked when we were safely back inside the Old Hatter’s Cottage. Rose took off her anorak, a padded one that looked like a sleeping bag with sleeves, before I could offer to help her, and slung it over the banister. I tried not to be too pointed about removing my greatcoat and hanging it on a coat hanger.

“Obvious about what? Being posh? Being a bit eccentric? Fancying Sean?”

What? “What? No, about being gay. Obviously. I mean, from what Sean said . . .”

“Well, it’s your gaydar, innit?”

Oh. Oh. “He’s gay?” I blurted out. Had I got this all wrong?

Rose seemed blithely unconcerned. “Well, I couldn’t say for sure, sure, but I’m pretty certain he swings both ways. I’ve seen him around the village with men just as much as with women. Are we going to eat or just stand around in the hall yakking?”

“They could be just friends,” I said, grabbing the takeaway bag from the hall table. “The men, I mean.”

“Yeah, right. The sort of friend you see all the time for a few months and then never hang around with ever again?” Well, she might have a point there. “Front room?” she carried on. “Or are we going to be all posh and sit at the dining table? Again.” We’d used the dining table, which was large, sturdy, and scratched, to do our marking on.

“Which would you prefer?”

“Duh. What do you think?”

“Fine. You go on through and sit down, and I’ll bring some plates.” I detoured into the kitchen and grabbed the requisite crockery and cutlery. “But he’s definitely had girlfriends?” I asked, joining her in the lounge. Or front room, if one preferred.

Rose had already made herself at home on the sofa and was flicking through the book I’d been reading, which happened to be a copy of Maurice by E. M. Forster. “God, is all your stuff a hundred years old?” She tossed the admittedly battered paperback onto my piano stool, then regarded the instrument itself, which had been an unexpected and touching moving-in present from my stepfather. “You know, I’m still waiting for you to serenade me with that thing. How about some entertainment while I eat?”

“What, so you can steal all the pork balls? I’m not that much of an idiot. Now focus, please. Sean. Girlfriends.”

Rose made a grab for the takeaway bag as I set out the plates and forks on the coffee table. “Oh, right. Yep. He went out for a while with Destinee’s aunt-who’s-her-cousin.”

I goggled, arrested in the act of sitting down beside her. “Pardon?”

I’d known they did things differently in the countryside. I hadn’t realised they did them that differently.

Rose looked up from the bag, holding a prawn cracker. “Oh, you know. Her mum, that’s Destinee’s mum’s sister, had her when she was still at school, so she was brought up by the grandparents. So Destinee calls her Auntie Chelsea. Happens all the time.” She gave me a sidelong look. “Okay, whatever you were thinking, I don’t think I want to know.”

“I . . . wasn’t thinking anything. At all. Do you know the family well?”

“I taught your class last year, remember? Believe me, you’ve got off easy so far. You’re going to see plenty of Destinee’s mum in the next few months.”

“Oh joy,” I muttered, opening up one of the little plastic tubs. “Um. What’s this one supposed to be?” The dish inside appeared to be mostly composed of bright-orange grease, with a lot of sticklike things poking out.

“Crispy chilli beef. Go on, have some. It’s yummy.”

“Is it supposed to be this oily?”

“Come on, it’s not that bad. Takeaways are always greasy. That’s part of the attraction.” She emptied out half the container of rice onto her plate and the rest onto mine.

“It is?”

“Well, yeah. Knowing you’re being a bit naughty is always fun. And hang on, are you telling me you’ve never had a takeaway before?”

My shoulders tensed. “Um, no? Why would I want to tell you something like that?”

“Oh my God. You haven’t, have you? What, did Nanny always cook your dinners right up until you left home?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I muttered, my cheeks burning. “I didn’t have a nanny.” Au pairs were an entirely different thing.

“And what about when you were at uni, for God’s sake? I mean, seriously?”

“I always ate in Hall. Or at a restaurant, but that was only once or twice a term. And before you ask, my last job was at a boarding school, so I ate in, of course.”

“And you never went out for a night’s drinking and got the munchies?”

“I don’t really drink very much. And I always kept a packet of chocolate Hobnobs in my rooms. Sometimes I used to eat toast.”

“Did you have a whatchamacallit, a fag to make it for you?”

“Only very occasionally,” I said drily. “And then only in the pejorative sense.”

“What? And, you know, what?”

“Fagging, as in junior boys performing menial tasks for their seniors, is a school thing, not a university thing. And not at my school, in any case. The most the junior boys ever have to do at Loriners’ is serve tea and crumpets to the Masters once a term.”

Rose made a face. “Public schools scare me. Why are they even called that? Why not just call them private schools? It’s more accurate.”

“It’s a historical thing.”

“Snob thing, if you ask me. Pass the chicken cashew thing.”

I passed it, and she served herself a generous portion. “Anyway, I didn’t go to public school. Loriners’ is an independent grammar school. Half the pupils don’t even board.”

“What, were you not posh enough for Eton? Mm, this is gorgeous. Have some. Go on.”

I took a small helping, trying to avoid the limp green bits. “Not really, no.”

“Not really what—oh, you mean posh? Bloody hell, I was joking. By whose standards are you not posh? The Queen’s?”

I shrugged. “We’re really very middle class. Mother would have liked me to go to somewhere like Winchester, but, well, it just didn’t happen.” Father’s death when I was ten had had quite a few unforeseen consequences. “And, anyway, I don’t think I’d have really fitted in.”

“No? Aren’t they all a load of young fogeys there?”

“Ouch.”

“Well, come off it. You wear all that tweed, and honestly, bow ties?”

“Bow ties are cool,” I said, confident of this at least. “Doctor Who said so.”

“Yeah, about three incarnations ago, wasn’t it? Not that Matt Smith was cool in the first place. Sweetheart, you need a new style icon.”

I had horrible visions of being dragged around Burton’s in an upside-down version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. “I’m fine how I am,” I said stiffly.

She shrugged and forked up a pork ball. “Your funeral.”

When I was sure she wasn’t looking, I glanced down surreptitiously at my checked shirt and corduroys. What was wrong with my clothes? Lots of people I knew dressed like me. My stepfather dressed like me.

Hmm. Possibly that was her point? “So what do you think I should be wearing?” I asked. “In the purely hypothetical event I might want to change my image.”

“Well, that long coat of yours is okay—quite swish, actually, very Sherlock—but what’s underneath could definitely do with an update. Have you ever even owned a pair of jeans? And try wearing shirts without ties. Especially bow ties. You know. Just normal stuff.”

“Jeans are uncomfortable.” And they made me feel alarmingly like I was on display.

“Not once you’ve worn them in, they’re not. Or you could start slow, maybe with a pair of chinos? But ditch the bow ties.”

“What, all thirty-one of them?” Quite a lot of them had been presents.

“Oh my God. Only you, Robert, could literally have a bow tie for every day of the month. Do they have little numbers on, so you know which one to wear each day? Or do you wear them all in strict rotation, so numbers twenty-nine to thirty-one don’t feel left out when it’s a short month?”

“They don’t have numbers!” I told her indignantly. “I just wear what I happen to be feeling like on the day, that’s all.” So what if I occasionally wore my least favourite ones on purpose so they didn’t feel neglected? “Anyway,” I said, rallying, “I bet you’ve got at least that many pairs of shoes.”

“No. Nowhere near.” Rose stopped eating for a moment, though, her head on one side. “Actually, I haven’t got a clue.”

I stared at her. “How can you not know how many pairs of shoes you’ve got?”

“Because I’ve never counted? Anyway, you know what it’s like. There’s always a few pairs that get kicked under the bed or shoved to the back of the wardrobe, and when you find them you think, Oh yeah, I remember you, let’s take you out for a stroll.” She smiled fondly, visions of kitten heels presumably dancing in her head.

I tried to imagine what it must be like to have hitherto forgotten pairs of shoes popping up all over the place. And failed.

Rose served herself an abstemious portion of monk’s vegetables. “So how many pairs of shoes have you got?”

“Seven,” I replied promptly. “There are my black dress shoes, my best brogues, my other brogues, my walking boots, my gym trainers—”

“Bet they’re bright white without a speck of dirt,” Rose interrupted.

“Well, obviously I don’t wear them outdoors. Then there are my running shoes—”

“I tried running once. Nearly killed me.”

“And finally, my cricket shoes. I left my tennis shoes at Mother and Peter’s house.”

“Do you seriously have a different pair of shoes for every single sporting activity?”

“You mean you don’t?”

“Robert, look at me. Does this figure scream sporty at you?”

For my sixteenth birthday, Mother arranged for me to go deer stalking. It was horrible—not because of all the blood and gore, because there wasn’t any. It was spectacularly unsuccessful, as deer hunts go. No, the worst thing about it was the man leading the hunt. He’d been a gamekeeper on one of the big estates, and I could tell he didn’t think much of the plebs who paid for a day’s hunting “experience.” Oh, he was all politeness when he thought anyone was watching, but I caught him laughing at Mother behind her back just because she said something that wasn’t quite right.

But I’m getting off track. What I meant to say was, right at the end of the day, when we were all about to give up, I sighted down my gun and a young stag just walked into view—and turned to look right at me, his antlers curving proudly over his fine-boned, regal head. I swear those sensitive brown eyes could see the danger he was in, but he just stood there, staring death in the face.

I didn’t shoot him, obviously. I’d rather have shot the hunt leader. From the look on his face when he realised I’d let one get away, I gathered the feeling was mutual.

But anyway, right now, I knew exactly how that stag had felt. I only hoped Rose would show me the same mercy I’d showed the stag when I, inevitably, said the wrong thing. “Well, you do have a touch of embonpoint.”

She frowned. “Is that like cellulite?”

“Er . . . It means you’re voluptuous.”

“Like Nigella Lawson?”

“Yes?” I said, hoping it was the right answer.

“Oh. Cool. But yeah, I’m not really into sport. Doing it or watching it. The one thing I don’t miss about Bastard Shitface”—I assumed this was the new pet name for the ex-fiancé—“is the endless hours of TV football. I mean seriously, what’s the big deal about watching a load of blokes chase a ball around a field?”

“It’s not just the game itself. It’s . . .” I struggled to express the concept and stalled for time by serving myself some more cashew chicken, although since Rose’s repeated depredations, the second half of the dish’s name was largely inaccurate. “It’s symbolic.”

“What, of men playing with their balls?”

No. It’s a battle for supremacy. Men competing to prove themselves better, stronger, more skilled. It’s a primeval urge.”

“So it’s basically comparing dick size?”

“There’s a bit more to it than that. Men united in hard, physical struggle—”

“Oh, it’s an acceptably straight way for men to express their repressed homosexual urges. Gotcha.”

“Well, you might have a point there. But it’s about camaraderie, team spirit, honour . . .” I gave up. “Noted. No sport-viewing marathons while you’re in the house.”

“There. That wasn’t so difficult, was it? So what did you think of Sean, anyway?” she asked me in what was probably supposed to be a casual tone.

I wasn’t fooled. “He seems nice.”

“I mean,” she went on quickly, “I know he’s probably not happy-ever-after material, but he’d make a good rebound fling, wouldn’t you say?” She crunched on some orange sticks.

I felt she was being a bit callous. Still, maybe she’d change her mind if they ever got, well, involved. “You don’t think he’s a bit young?”

“What, seriously? He can’t be that many years off thirty, for God’s sake.” She frowned. “Why, do you?”

Uh-oh. I was firmly in Faux Pas City tonight, taking up residence in Foot-in-Mouth Mansions, on the corner of Oops Avenue. “No, no. Absolutely not. More, um, beef?”

“No, ta, I’m stuffed. No, I’m pretty sure he’s in his late twenties at least. Him and the twins’ mum are twins too. Runs in the family.”

“Like the hair.” I looked at the container of crunchy, sweet, sticklike things masquerading (not very successfully) as beef. It’d be a shame to waste it. I tipped the rest onto my plate.

“Yeah. Although I heard the twins’ dad was a ginge, too. Poor little sods had no chance.”

“Are you implying there’s something wrong with having red hair?”

“Depends, dunnit? Some blokes make it look good. Sean, fr’instance,” she said with a sly look at me. “But others, you just look at them and think ew, ginger nuts.”

“I never realised that when a lady looks at a man, she’s picturing his, ah . . .”

“Man-garden?”

“Thank you. Not. I think I preferred not knowing.” I pushed all inappropriate images of Sean firmly out of my head and looked down at my plate.

Unfortunately, the orange tangle of crispy beef was just a little too suggestive for my peace of mind.

 

Chapter Three

Going out of the house the next morning, I was accosted by Hanne, my small Norwegian neighbour. Milly and Lily, her two giant schnauzers, strained at their leashes, inexplicably failing to pull their mistress along the street after them. “Did you enjoy your takeaway last night?” she asked with a smile, holding back Cerberus’s sisters with no apparent signs of strain.

Why I’d thought moving out of boarding school to teach in a village would make a scrap of difference to everyone knowing my business, I couldn’t presently imagine. “Yes, thank you,” I said politely, trying to get past her without getting tangled up in the dogs’ leads. Milly, or possibly Lily, took the opportunity to get a good sniff at an area a well-brought-up dog, I felt, would have had the delicacy to avoid.

“And your friend, she works with you?”

“Rose? Oh yes.”

“She looks very nice. Will she come again?”

“Er, probably, sometime.” I wasn’t quite sure what Hanne was getting at.

“You tell me when she’s coming. I’ll show you how to make lamb-and-cabbage stew. It’s easy, you can’t go wrong.” I was baffled by Hanne’s apparent faith in me. Still, she didn’t know me all that well. “And maybe deer antlers. They’re very tasty, and fun to share.”

Deer antlers? You couldn’t actually eat those, could you? Wouldn’t they be rather, well, chewy? Or maybe crunchy? “That’s very kind, but you really don’t—”

“A nice young man like you shouldn’t be alone all the time.” She smiled again and effortlessly pulled the dogs to heel as she walked on by. Maybe she power-lifted in secret.

I strode on up the hill and towards the school. I wasn’t alone all the time. I saw people every day. At work, and in the village shops, and . . . All right, so I didn’t have much of a social life, but I was far from a hermit. I just didn’t know many people in the village yet.

And it was entirely my business, I decided firmly, whether or not I made any effort to get to know people. Checking my watch to find that yes, it was eight thirteen, and no, the church clock still wasn’t telling the right time, I quickened my pace. If I didn’t get a shift on, there would be parents outside the classroom already by the time I got there, eager to offload their little darlings for the day.

They tended to get a bit stroppy if you kept them waiting.

* * * * * * *

When, having armed myself with a cup of coffee from the staff room, I opened the classroom door to let in the marauding hordes, I soon spotted three matching flashes of orange. Sean was dropping off the terrible twins. He shot me a grin as they got to the front of the higgledy-piggledy line. “All right?”

I’m never sure what the correct reply to that is. Should one say, Yes, thank you, I’m fine, or does one just repeat the greeting? After all, nobody who says How do you do ever expects to be told how, in fact, one is doing. Perhaps it would be safer to go with a simple Good morning. I opened my mouth—then a plaintive chorus of “Mr. Enemy” sounded from behind me, and I was forced to turn away from Sean.

Obviously not recovered from the previous day’s ill-advised excavation, Charlie’s nose had started to bleed again. By the time I was able to look up from him, Sean was long gone.

I did my best to quell the rising disappointment. There would be plenty of opportunities to talk to him again. For the purposes of getting him together with Rose, I reminded myself sternly. I did a quick head count, closed the classroom door, and got out the register.